Communities Enduring Beyond School
A Comment symposium on academic-borne friendships that beat the odds.
Sometimes friendships we make during our young adult years continue, offering us a unique, enduring context of encouragement and challenge by people who know us well because they've known us for a long time.
Steven Garber writes in The Fabric of Faithfulness that people "who keep on pursuing the vision of a coherent life—one that meaningfully connects the disparate strands of one's existence—are people who have made the choice to live their lives among folk who share their vision of the good life." Peter Berger has long taught of the importance of communities that serve as "plausibility structures" for our belief systems.
We identified a handful of exemplary communities that started out during people's young adult years, then endured for some considerable time. We invited representatives of each to write about their experiences, asking them these questions: How would you describe your group of friends? What activities bring you together? What drew you and your friends together in college? What have been the enduring factors in these relationships? What advice do you have for college students who dream of such life-long relationships with a community of friends
"The Boonie Boys"
Begun: Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, 2000
Scribe: Esther L. Meek
I am the proud owner of a black T-shirt bearing the above title, inscribed in white Fractur lettering, with the date: 2004. Schlupfwinkel means hiding place. On the back, small and at shoulder level, arranged with the points of a compass, it reads: essen, trinken, rauchen, beten (eating, drinking, smoking, praying). The fact that I own the shirt means, I think, that I am an honorary non-member of this group.
In 2000, at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, I had the chance to pilot a course that eventually became my book, Longing to Know (Brazos, 2003). The class was full of intensely intelligent and dedicated students, including Ken, Ned, Greg, Giorgio, Wes, John, and Mike. I had had some of them in my other philosophy courses, which I taught at an adjunct's rate of one each semester. After several class meetings, a handful of these students would linger, talking with me and with each other, often for more than an hour. Great, deep conversation was happening around these young men's seminary study, and especially around that course.
They told me that they also gathered spontaneously in the evenings, on a grassy median of the street of an enclave of tiny homes seminary students rented. In the darkening twilight they would process together what they had learned in class and what it meant for life in general and for their lives in particular.
By the time they graduated, they had realized that this unprogrammed practice was vibrantly good, something that they wanted to be intentional about after seminary throughout their lives. Twelve or so of them covenanted together to meet every year for a couple days at a cabin in the woods (which led me to call them the Boonie Boys) to listen to each other's stories, to care, to exhort, to pray—to walk through life and ministry together. They always evenly split the cost that it takes each to get to the cabin. The event, I'm told, has grown traditions of smoking, cooking, and touch football in the snow. Photos show flannel-shirted, booted men sitting in a circle in a cozy cabin in various postures of absorbed listening. It hasn't continued to be only a cabin in the woods; I think I heard talk of a houseboat at one point . . .
As long as I lived in St. Louis, when the Schlupf retreat concluded, a couple of the guys would come for a visit, catch me up on their lives, and extend the spiritual services informally to me (they didn't make me smoke, but they did give me a T-shirt).
In the decade that the Schlupf has continued, everyone I know in the group have moved through further graduate work, vocational decisions, and transitions, as well as through some heartbreaking family crises. In addition to the annual gathering, during the year they tap each other via the Internet for prayer, counsel, and encouragement. In times of crisis, a couple would come, bodily, to the side of the person in need.
Their number includes campus ministers, pastors, college professors, and civil servants. To a man, they are stellar leaders, respected widely, making a difference in the world. I wrote Longing to Know because they asked me to and inspired me to. A few have invited me to speak to their students (my "grand-students") and have encouraged me in my own life decisions and crises. I feel confident that their care of me is only typical of their manner toward many others. A key to their stardom is that they "get" covenant friendship and have mastered its practice.
I can guess that the Boonie Boys think that the Schlupf is the best thing they got out of seminary. Not that seminary classes are not important. But what people need—and what the church needs—is truth lived together, caringly shared and administered in covenant friendship. Especially when the participants are studying for vocational ministry, this dynamic is essential. It is essential because it embodies the Christian gospel and reflects the Holy Trinity. Apart from it, the best seminary curriculum leaves a vacuum-full disconnect between classroom and future practice of both word and deed.
Our unthinking expectation is that college and seminary graduates bid each other goodbye at commencement, leaving as individuals to find individual jobs in individual locations that bear no intentional connection to our past or our friends. Why on earth should this be the only way—especially for Christian believers? May we not graduate a mission team or seed group for a church and community? May we not graduate a musical ensemble or a creative new business group? What would it be like not to say goodbye at commencement—not only to a new spouse, but to a team of classmates-turned-compatriots? Why couldn't Christian colleges and seminaries intentionally support such covenants, annually orchestrating for those alumni groups venues (cabin or houseboat) and fare (coffee essential, pipes optional), informal continuing education, and the chance to stay connected in support of their alma mater? And why couldn't these be the very hiding places of Christian brothers and sisters, intimate in their Christian walk, that is the heart and the best of the Christian life?
Bound to Flourish
"The Pew College Society"
Begun: Dallas Baptist University, 1997
Scribe: David Naugle
C. S. Lewis was surprised by joy. We were surprised by community—and by the joy of community. When, by the grace of God, we received a small grant from the Pew Younger Scholars Program to establish a Pew College Society at Dallas Baptist University, I wasn't thinking about how important the formation of a spiritual/learning community would be, nor how transforming it would be for me and for them. But it was. We were, indeed, surprised by community.
Again, by the grace of God, our community wasn't just any old regular community. Several elements began to shape its character. Like a solid foundation in a biblical worldview—in particular, the creation-fall-redemption, Kuyperian model; like an emphasis on liberal education and the reading of great books; like a focus on moral education and the spiritual disciplines; like a theology of work and vocation; like a primary telos aimed at the love of God and neighbour; like the role of mentors, and the importance, yes, of our life together—our community.
This Pew College Society, therefore, was bound together by faith, by a vision for education shaped by faith, by a goal of godly human flourishing, by a sense of divine calling and purpose, and by Christian love—rightly ordered.
There was also a culture of graduate school fostered in our midst. It wasn't whether, but where a student would be going to grad school. There was a particular desire to become agents of the kingdom of God in education, in scholarship, and at the university. We wanted to contribute to the next generation of Christian scholars, as well as other vocations. Still do.
Our group was—and is—bound together by an abundance of shared activities. These include our weekly "Friday Symposium" lecture series, Books and Coffee nights, a fall study retreat, lots of parties, concerts and presentations at our home, an annual student conference (a really big deal), "Cinematic Confabulations" (movie nights), table-fellowship, and visiting scholars and speakers from all across America.
The Pew money eventually ran out. Thanks be to God for a generous couple—the Wilkinsons—and a University administration willing to help keep our community of faith and learning going until this present day. Except now we call it the Paideia College Society (my wife gave it the new name). God has done many wonderful things in and through our group. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor space to tell you about even a few of them. Just know that we are grateful! The words of the psalmist ring true, unsurprisingly: "Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brothers [and sisters] to dwell together in unity." Soli Deo Gloria!
"The Thomas Parker Society"
Begun: Seattle Pacific University, 1991
Scribe: Jeffrey Overstreet
Summer 1991. I've joined about 20 college classmates working along the coast of Washington's Whidbey Island. We're camp counselors for day-camping kids; groundskeepers for the soccer fields, lawns, and hiking trails; and housekeepers for the old officers' quarters at Seattle Pacific University's Camp Casey Conference Center—the north half of the island's Fort Casey property. We don't know each other well . . . yet. We're from different academic programs, not to mention very different backgrounds.
But for three months, we eat every meal together. We absorb sunrises and sunsets that radiate across Puget Sound; walk in the forest of evergreens and madronas; spy on deer, owls, foxes, seals, otters, rabbits, bald eagles, and more.
At dusk on Wednesdays, we hike into the woods to an old military bunker named for a Civil War soldier: Thomas Parker. We whisper along a spider-webbed corridor, gather in a candlelit circle in an underground cement room, and pass around a flashlight. Then we read to each other, for several hours. Classic literature. Children's stories. Poetry. Essays. Discoveries (like the ingredients on a Twinkie wrapper). And our own creative writing.
I compose weekly installments of a murder mystery. Society members are the characters. My coworkers tell me all of the odd, interesting, and memorable details from their daily routines. I weave these details into the story.
By summer's end, we've been changed: by nature, by literary revelation, by sharing ourselves. We won't return to that idyllic place, but we can't break the habit. We'll go on gathering in new locations for the next 19 years and beyond, inviting friends from all branches of our lives. Hundreds of people will come and go from The Thomas Parker Society. Time will take away the founding members, but those friendships will last, built on a shared experience of beauty. Our lives, and libraries, are strengthened by the readings and the relationships.
During the darkest chapter of my life, a year of devastating loss, I'll find comfort and healing in the Society's company. Some will share journals as they struggle with cancer. Some will meet future husbands and wives (I met my wife, Anne, at the Thomas Parker Society).
Looking back, I wonder what would have been different if we'd all had cell phones and the Internet. Would we have started the Society if we'd all been wired to the outside world instead of learning to live together and enjoy one another? Is the art of reading aloud in community becoming a lost art?
If you dare to explore such volatile territory, make it a rule: No cell phones. Give yourself and others the gift of your full attention and presence. Listen closely. Eat and drink together. Keep readings very short, to tease each other with new sensations. Refrain from critique; this isn't the time or place for that. You're planting a garden where the seeds of ideas and imagination spread and take root, where friendships and ideas grow.
The Start of a Cultural Movement
"The Groen Club"
Begun: Calvin College, Grand Rapids, 1953
Scribe: Harry Van Belle
Founded in the mid-1950s by H. Evan Runner, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, the Groen Club was named after the nineteenth-century Dutch Christian statesman Groen van Prinsterer. It was a study club in which, under the leadership of Runner, students wrote, presented, and discussed papers aimed at the development of a Christian worldview in the areas of politics, economics, education, and the arts.
Most of the Club's members were Canadian students attending Calvin (myself among them) whose parents had recently immigrated to Canada from Holland. This was no accident since the Club patterned itself after similar study clubs which these young people had attended in Holland for the same purpose of working out a Reformed Christian worldview. The only difference was that the discussion in the Groen Club was conducted at an academically higher level.
The language at the Club was pervasively neocalvinistic or reformational. Frequently, we referenced the works of Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, and Vollenhoven.
We members of the Groen Club developed a desire and resolve to develop a Christian approach to our chosen field of study. It undoubtedly became the most important influence of our academic life.
At the urging of Dr. Runner, some of us (notably Bernard and Uko Zylstra, Hendrick Hart, James Olthuis, George Vander Velde, Albert Wolters, Harry Van Dyke, Tony Tol and myself) chose to do our graduate work at the Free University of Amsterdam. The years we spent in Holland together further cemented the friendship ties established in Groen Club.
Groen Club also was the start of a reformational cultural movement in Canada that included the establishment of such Christian organizations as the Christian Labour Association of Canada, the Committee for Public Justice, The King's University College, Redeemer University College, and the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. Our participation in these organizations over the years served to maintain and deepen the friendships begun at Groen Club.
[Eds: For more, see "H. Evan Runner and the Groen Club," by Harry Van Dyke in Comment, January 2004.]